In my idea of a dream location, Gulf Breeze is a city at the end of a long peninsula in Pensacola Bay. I’ll try and be concise here, but it’s not easy when talking about everything you can do on this part of the Gulf Coast.
First off there’s the waters of Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound to the south. Sheltered from wind and currents, these are filled with wildlife and ready for all kinds of outdoor recreation.
You can rent a pontoon boat, waverunner, kayak, paddleboard—it’s up to you. Alternatively, there’s a wide choice of cruises, many centered on dolphin spotting.
Gulf Breeze is right by two areas of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, both embodying almost 200 years of military history.
I haven’t even talked about historic Pensacola, to the north, and its beach community to the south, with a sandy shoreline so special it needs to be seen to be believed.
1. Gulf Breeze Zoo
With more than 800 animals on 50 lush acres, the Gulf Breeze Zoo is an award-winning local family attraction.
The zoo’s animal residents come from nearly every corner of the globe, and what I like best about this place are the many close-up encounters.
You can wander through a free-flight aviary, observe alligators feeding, hold a baby gator, and even get to feed several species yourself. These include giraffes, hippos, Galapagos tortoises, and even Indian rhinos.
If all this sounds a little intense, there’s the Safari Express train ride, trundling through a large preserve home to orangutans, gorillas, and Nile hippos.
2. Casino Beach, Pensacola Beach
I don’t think you can be so close and not cross the sound to the Gulf Shore. Especially because the beaches here are some of the best in the United States.
This applies to Casino Beach, which sits in the shadow of Pensacola Beach’s iconic beach ball tower. On the shore is a wide sweep of those sugar-white sands. They’re so white that they hardly look real, and make you squint on a sunny day.
The beach is named for a casino, established in the 1930s. In the old meaning of the word, this was a venue for events rather than a gambling facility.
You’ve got a row of food options right on the sand here, as well as a 1,200-foot pier, which I’ll cover later.
3. Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
When the casino was built at Pensacola Beach in the 1930s, this 1,200-foot pier was part of the development.
Like any pier in Florida, the Gulf Pier has lived through plenty of tough times. The worst event was Hurricane Opal in 1995.
But I learned that this helped bring about an ingenious design overhaul. To preserve the concrete piles and caps, the wooden decking isn’t crucial to the integrity of the structure.
Fishing folk flock to the pier year-round to tangle with the Gulf’s abundant game fish, like bluefish, mackerel, cobia, and flounder.
For visitors who don’t have their own fishing gear, it’s possible to rent rods and buy bait. The pier is also a fabulous place for a walk, and is breathtaking at twilight or early in the day. It’s common to see large fish, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine animals just by looking over the edge.
4. Naval Live Oaks Preserve
More than 1,300 acres of this western end of the Fairpoint Peninsula are taken by an area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
The Naval Live Oaks Preserve gets its name from the nation’s first federal tree farm. This was established in 1829 to cultivate live oaks for shipbuilders.
There are more than seven miles of trail at Naval Live Oaks, passing through a stand of this mature hardwood forest, as well as along the shores of Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound.
These will take you to secluded public beaches and picnic areas. The main one, on the south side of US 98, has a sublime view of the bay, and an observation deck with signs to help you ID wildlife like wading birds.
5. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens Area
At the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, this historic installation is one of the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s most celebrated spots.
Still intact, Fort Pickens dates back to 1834 and remained under Union control throughout the Civil War.
Touring the structure I learned about one-off design features like a counterscarp that only covered the east side. This would have formed a moat separating the fort from the rest of the island had it been filled.
Abounding with natural beauty, jaw-dropping sandy beaches, and yet more historic military structures, this area of the national seashore is a favorite destination for camping.
For much of the year, it’s a good idea to reserve your camping spot before arriving, but if you’ll be staying from November through February, campsites are handed-out on a first-come, first-served basis.
The park includes a camper’s convenience store, and guided, staff-led tours are offered to both Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas.
6. Frisky Mermaid Dolphin Tours & Boat Rentals
If you want to spend time on the water, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach are home to numerous tour and rental companies.
My priority would be to get out onto the bay in the hopes of seeing the dolphins, often visible on the bay and at Pensacola Pass. For that there’s Frisky Mermaid, which has two vessels for its public tours.
These last a couple of hours and take place all year round. When you’re not admiring dolphins in their natural habitat, you’ll be treated to a tour of the bay, taking in its sights from the water.
The other side to this company’s business is pontoon boat rentals. These are available for anything from half a day to a full week, and are equipped with GPS to help you get around safely.
7. Gulf Breeze Celebrates the Arts Festival
My pick of the annual events in Gulf Breeze is a two-day arts festival in late March. This event has been on the calendar for some 30 years and surprised me with its scale.
Setting up at the Gulf Breeze Community Center are more than 100 artists, from across the country. You can browse and purchase work in a host of media, from painting to jewelry, prints and woodwork.
There are also local art shows showcasing the talents of kids and adults. Other highlights include artist-led demonstrations, a charity raffle, and a choice of food vendors.
At Gulf Breeze you can also set your gaze inland, and cross the bay to Pensacola proper. The City of Five Flags has some 500 years of history to reveal.
There’s a percolating downtown, with restaurants, bars, intriguing shops, and entertainment venues in historic buildings on brick-paved Palafox Place. On the east is a slew of worthwhile museums, as downtown merges with the Seville Quarter.
Adorned with mature live oaks and beautiful architecture, this district was laid out by the British in the mid-18th century. That street plan remains unchanged to this day. Meanwhile, names like Tarragona Street and Zaragoza Street go back to the 1780s when the Spanish retook the city.
Among my absolute must-dos in Pensacola are the world-famous Joe Patti’s Seafood market, the Naval Aviation Museum, and the modern retail and dining of Uptown.
9. Fishing Charters
Now, I’m no expert when it comes to fishing, but I do know there’s a lot of captains waiting to take you on the fishing trip of a lifetime around Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach.
This can be done inshore, around the bay, or in the nearshore on the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on the species you’re trying to catch you’ll be free-lining, drifting, jigging, bottom fishing, or trolling.
A few of the species caught in these waters are king mackerel, scamp grouper, gag grouper, great barracuda, amberjack, red snapper, flounder, great barracuda, mahi mahi, and whatever else is biting.
Depending on the regulations you may be allowed to keep your fish, and your captain will often clean it so it’s ready for a meal.
There are dozens of charter options all on this part of the Gulf Shore. A few high-rated picks are Reel Irie Fishing Charters, Reel Addiction, Hotspots Inshore/Nearshore, and Paradise Fishing Charters.
10. Shoreline Park South
The main public space if you want to be active in Gulf Breeze is Shoreline Park. This comprises north and south sections, and I’ll talk about the south one now.
This part is on the bay, with a nature trail/boardwalk taking you over the wetlands behind.
With an absence of surf or strong currents, the bayside beach is great for kids, and there’s a 400-foot swimming pier with covered observation decks.
To go with that you’ve got a dual boat launch, and a rentable covered picnic gazebo, equipped with water, electricity, and a charcoal grill.
11. Shoreline Park North
The north section of Shoreline Park is more of an active recreation facility, and I was blown away by the scale of this place and the quality of its amenities.
Families paying a casual visit will be smitten with the Sunset Island Kids’ Park playground, and the Dolphin Island Splash Pad.
Sports-wise, you’ve got ten lighted tennis courts, a skatepark, two outdoor basketball courts, an 18-hole disc golf course, and an exercise trail more than a mile long.
This is complemented by ten lighted multipurpose fields for everything from baseball to soccer, as well as indoor courts at the Gulf Breeze Community Center.
12. Tiger Point Golf Club
If you’re in need of a round of golf, there’s an attractive 18-hole course by the water on Santa Rosa Sound. When I played at Tiger Point the entire course had recently been improved.
I found everything in tip-top condition, from the tee boxes to the ultra-quick greens. The front 9 of this track has an open layout, similar to a links course.
Here, the challenge comes from the water, which is everywhere, combined with dreamy views of the bay. In particular, #3, #4 and #5 are equal parts testing and fun. The back nine is a little tighter, as you play through residential developments.
13. Pensacola Beach Boardwalk
The first thing you’ll see after crossing the Pensacola Beach Toll Bridge from Gulf Breeze is this development facing Santa Rosa Sound.
The Pensacola Beach Boardwalk lines Quietwater Beach, a stretch of peaceful bayside shoreline. The swimming area is traced by a T-shaped dock, framing these clear and shallow waters.
As for the boardwalk, this is a shopping, dining, and entertainment destination with a medley of famous brands and independent businesses. Live music is always part of the fun, while there’s a schedule of seasonal festivals to catch on the boardwalk.
I can’t forget that this is also a departure point for cruises and dolphin spotting tours. For one, the Pensacola Bay Cruise bounces around the bay, calling at Fort Pickens and Downtown Pensacola.
14. Radical Rides
Just off Pensacola Beach Boulevard as you cross the bridge, this company has offered water adventures for more than a quarter of a century. Radical Rides specializes most of all in parasailing.
There’s an emphasis on safety, so you can relax and take in an unrivaled view of Pensacola Beach’s sugar-white sands. From this height you you may catch sight of wildlife, from eagle rays to dolphins.
Radical Rides also offers waverunner rentals, as well as kayaking or paddle-boarding on Santa Rosa Sound. These come with all the necessary safety equipment, and a brief tutorial.
15. Glow Paddle
A unique way to explore the sheltered Pensacola Bay waters is after dark on a clear kayak or paddleboard.
If this sounds strange, Glow Paddle’s vessels are fitted with waterproof LEDs that turn the experience into something magical. You don’t need to be an experienced paddler or have a powerful upper body to paddle in these waters.
The lights illuminate the dark waters, highlighting fish, easily observed through the clear hull of your kayak. It’s a great option for groups of friends, and you can get into the party spirit with glow paint before you set off.